As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
– Francis Scott Key, The Star Spangled Spammer
Today is Independence Day for the United States of America. It’s also two days before my birthday. I thought I’d just mention that. Yes, I could have been a Yankee Doodle Dandy, born on the 4th of July. My mom had gone into the hospital on the day with contractions. I once asked her about being in labor on the holiday, but she just claims she remember being sick with nausea, and throwing up while a trailer for the film, ‘Mutiny On The Bounty’, was being shown on TV.
Meanwhile, a little rambunctious bouncing baby boy, yet to be born, bided his time and stayed put, opting to be fashionably late. Mutiny on Bounty, indeed! Actually, this wasn’t my mom’s first brush with near-holiday births; years before, my sister was born on December 30th, just missing out on a New Years birth by oh so little. So near misses was pretty much par for the course for our mother, as was our penchant to screw with her timing.
Anyway, even though I am miles away from the land of my birth, I’ll still celebrate, but not because I’m patriotic or proud to be an American. Mainly, it’s because it’s a good excuse to light some sparklers with my kids and then eat hotdogs, ‘Boston’ baked beans, potato salad, apple pie, and corn on the cob, with abandon and without waist line related guilt. Actually, I was thinking of macaroni and cheese, too. Maybe pick a few Beach Boys tunes on the guitar. Definitely do Starbucks later in the evening and fret over the fact that due to the NFL lockout, there still is no football in sight for the near future.
Yes, so this is apparently what my nationalism has been reduced to: food, football, sparkly things and rock n’ roll. Oh, I forgot to mention one more item, angst. Relatedly, the other day, I ate at McDonald’s, which to be honest is something I rarely do. I had a Big Mac. It was tasteless. It was filling, but completely tasteless. It made me angry to think that this is what ‘Americanism’ has been reduced to: feeling bloated and completely unsatisfied.
The truth is that being an American has lost much meaning for me over the years, and it’s not just because I happen to live abroad. I think it’s because it has become harder and harder for me to identify exactly with what ‘being American’ actually means, and for that matter, what ‘America’ actually stands for.
It’s funny because if you ask some non-Americans to define the United States you will most certainly glean a clear stream of celebritism, fashion, and food: John Wayne, Blue Jeans, Marilyn Monroe, Hollywood, McDonald’s, Sneakers, MTV, Coca Cola, Mickey Mouse, Starbucks, Elvis Presley, NBA, etc. But along with these highly marketed American icons, you’d also reap the following string of ‘less than niceties’: bourgeois capitalists, atom bomb droppers, communist bashers, purists, ethnocentric boors, gun-toting fanatics, flip-flop wearing heart attacks waiting to happen.
Now in truth, I can’t speak for most Americans. In fact, neither can most Americans probably speak for each other. However, for this American, the definition of ‘being American’ seems lost. I grew up in very apathetic and coma inducing times. Torn between idealistic ‘communitarianism values’ of the 1960s and ‘atomized individualism’ of the 1970s, the ‘Me Decade’*, I pretty much sought escape into music, television, radio, and science fiction. I was very interested in current affairs and so I devoured the newspaper daily, but spent much of my schooling years staring out the window. Patriotism to me was hearing the National Anthem played before watching a football or baseball game, eating turkey on Thanksgiving, and watching fireworks on the 4th of July. Oh, and eating hot dogs, too.
Really, if there ever was any flag waving sentiment in me, it was most likely quashed by my understanding that television and radio was being censored in my youth, my seeing pictures of the Vietnam war on the news, my reading Mad Magazine, and my being bored terminally with the Watergate trials on TV. I also blame ‘disco’, but that’s another story.
The point is that I understood that the mood of the country suggested that being Patriotic just wasn’t cool … unless you were Johnny Cash, who was very cool to me. Being indifferent was more the fashion. Being patriotic to some meant buying miniature ‘made in Japan’ copies of ‘Old Glory’ from Kmart to hang on their mail boxes on some national holidays. Yes, the American Flag became just another holiday ornament to be brought out on occasion, like Christmas tree lights and Jack-O-Lanterns. Of course, some hung from the wheelchairs of some down and out Vietnam Vets I remember seeing panhandling downtown. Not a very patriotic image, I’m sure you’ll agree, but one that still lingers as a poor stereotype even today.
The ‘dream’ of the 60s became very commercialized in the 70s, and American life settled into ‘let’s go to the mall’ to get a quality of life that only a credit card can buy, and the neighbors next door already owned. In many respects, that was fine with me and many other Americans, because the mall was just another avenue for escapism; a happy place to go to numb the numbness of knowing that we had all sold out.
How did we end up this way? How is it that we have such short memories? Our country is less than 250 years old, and still today, there are many political pundits who argue over interpreting just what it was the framers of our grand Constitution had in mind with certain words and phrases. What is it that caused this dementia of mind and spirit in some?
I’ll offer that ‘Big Business’, government interest and backroom politics merged to ensure that the idealism of any form of alternative culture was replaced by materialism and self-interest. The mass media, conservative and liberal, became just another tool to manipulate the masses to consume, and also distract them from the reality that the ‘powers that be’ had become less a government for the people and of the people, and more something akin to a mega-multinational corporation, whose financial bottom line matters more than its citizens and the environment they live in. Liberty, freedoms, rights and even democracy don’t really enter it.
The Statue of Liberty bears the words, “Give me your tired, your poor,your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Those words on Lady Liberty should stand for more than just a sales pitch for McDonald’s Happy Meals, Allstate Insurance, Ford Motor Vehicles and Shell Oil.
As I’m writing this, an undetermined amount of crude oil has been pouring into the Yellowstone River near Billings, Montana, courtesy of an Exxon Mobil pipeline leak. Happy Birthday, America. Yes, there are many reasons why I celebrate my country’s independence day. Very few of them have anything to with July 4th and American Independence.
I could go on, but my hotdogs are starting to blister.
PS. Thanks for reading. What does being American mean to you? How do you celebrate Independence Day? Do you feel feel patriotic or patronized? Let me know!
* Tom Wolfe, The “Me” Decade and the Third Great Awakening”. From the August 23, 1976 issueof New York Magazine.